What is Calvinism?

What is Calvinism?: The writings of John Calvin assert that in all things God should come first. Stating that the church is totally dependent on God for teaching, preaching, worship and organization. And that as a result of proper adherence to these areas, social change should come about.

Originally no one want to be called a “Calvinist”

The first thing you have to know is that almost nobody who we now think of as being a “Calvinist” wanted to be called that at the time. Calvin himself never claimed to be creating a unique system of theology, and he never defined “Calvinism.”

Scholars agree that there is no single “most important” doctrine that Calvin uses to organize his theology. None of Calvin’s students argued that they were members of a “Calvinist” school of doctrine.

A Collection of ideas

So instead of trying to find a single idea that defines Calvinism, we would do better to understand it as a collection of common theological ideas, views of church organization and law, and expectations about Christian living and social change.

The Opposite of Calvinism is Arminianism

Arminianism was a reaction to Calvinism. It asserts that God is sovereign, but that man has free will and the two are compatible.

The Calvinist position asserts that God controls all events. He is sovereign in all matters. In Arminianism, there is a relationship at play—that is, God’s sovereignty and man’s free will, which was given to him by God.

It allows for the discussion to take place, for man to make a choice to accept God’s plan of salvation and turn to Christ, or to seek his own way.

In John 3:16, Jesus tells Nicodemus, “whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” The whosoever is in direct contrast to predestination outlined by Calvin. Moreover, God’s foreknowledge of events does not prevent man from making a decision. Whosoever is welcome to come into God’s kingdom. Predestination suggests he is locked in or out, without making a free will choice.

The five points of Calvinism

Here is a thumbnail description of Calvinism, which is presented in five points. Some agree with some of the five points, but not all.

1. Total depravity

2. Unconditional election

3. Limited atonement

4. Irresistible grace

5. Perseverance of the saints

1. Total Depravity

The Apostle Paul taught “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23) He wrote of our sin nature. In Genesis we learn of the fall of man and how that impacted our relationship with Him.

Calvin maintained that we are sin stained in all aspects of our lives. Our mind and body, our emotions, our free will render us helpless and God and God alone can save us.

This sets up a question: Does God intervene because we cannot make a free will choice for him to come into our lives? Clearly, in the words of Jesus, “I am the way the truth and the life,” (John 14:6) there is only one way to God. It demands a choice.

Calvinism states that God must do all the work, which is very true, because man cannot save himself. But many disagree with Calvin and believe that God gives us the free will to chose. God does not make that choice for us.

2. Unconditional Election

Calvinists hold that God chooses who is and who is not to be saved. They assert that because people are dead to their sins, they cannot respond to God. Calvinists believe that God created an “elect,” those who would be saved. He does this out of kindness. Those not chosen are damned.

Calvinists believe that the choice was made in eternity past, long before man came into existence. Whosoever was not invited, and because of this, man’s free will to turn to God, repent and accept Christ, is not a consideration. Non Calvinists ask: If this is true, then why did Christ have to go to the cross?

3. Limited Atonement

Who did Jesus die for? Was it only the elect? Calvinists believe that Jesus died only for the elect, those chosen in advance by God.

But Jesus said:

For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45)

Does “man” mean only the elect, or does it mean those who make a free will choice to accept salvation through Christ?

There are some who hold to be Calvinist but reject the limited atonement stance, believing that Christ died for the entire world.

The Apostle Paul wrote:

And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Acts 2:21)

The Apostle John also said,

He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

Most believe that while salvation through Christ is exclusive, it is not exclusionary. All are welcome.

4. Irresistible Grace

The Calvinist position asserts that those who are the elect, chosen to be saved, are brought into God’s fold through an internal call. They cannot resist, it’s impossible. The Holy Spirit comes to them and works on them until they repent. Here is an argument for that position:

It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: “I raised you up for this very purpose, that I might display my power in you and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth.”

Therefore God has mercy on whom he wants to have mercy, and he hardens whom he wants to harden. (Romans 9:16-18)

The main argument against their position is simply that God gave man the free will to chose. It’s an important distinction. I choose to love God, just as God chose to love me.

It is a relationship built on faith and trust. Being compelled or forced or predetermined to be saved is not free will. Jesus said “whosoever” believes in me… Anybody can come to God, through Christ, by their own choosing.

5. Perseverance of the Saints

Calvinists believe that man cannot lose his salvation because the work God, of Christ on the cross and of the Holy Spirit cannot be undone. It is eternal security. But does that mean the saints persevere, or is it God that perseveres? It is not clear.

Roman Catholics and Lutherans would suggest otherwise, that man can lose his salvation. This opens up an entirely new discussion around whether or not a person is saved when they accept Christ. Can they be taken out of God’s hands? Just because a person is saved does not exempt them from sinning.

The Apostle Paul made this clear at the end of Romans 7:

We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.

And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing.

Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members.

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans7:14-8:1)

Coming to grips with sin

Christianity teaches that man must come to grips with his sin. That is, admit he is a sinner. Because of man’s sin against a perfect God, he is guilty of breaking the law, which requires a death sentence.

Man is, therefore, helpless and totally dependent on the mercy and grace of God. Exactly how that mercy and grace are administered may be the dividing points when examining Calvinist theology and determining whether or not you agree with Calvinist doctrine.